Sophie Sonnenfield, Contributing Photographer

In two years of meetings, the city’s Civilian Review Board has been tasked with sifting through hundreds of Internal Affairs cases and generating disciplinary suggestions for the New Haven Police Department. But for almost every case review the CRB delivered, the recommendations came too late. 

NHPD Chiefs have 90 days after an Internal Affairs case is closed to decide on how to discipline officers. As the CRB battled backlogged cases, time ticked by and so they presented suggestions after that deadline, rendering much of the CRB’s work symbolic and stationary. 

In reviewing these cases, CRB members kept track of what they say are concerning patterns plaguing the NHPD. They discussed these findings with NHPD Police Chief Karl Jacobson during their Oct. 24 meeting.  Among their top concerns are use of force, profanity and yelling. Jacobson agreed to address police officers’ verbal conduct while also committing — against the CRB’s recommendation — to keeping punches to the head as part of the department’s use-of-force policy. 

Banning head punches 

Among their suggestions, CRB members wrote that they want to see the chief ban officers from punching heads, faces or other body parts that could damage internal organs, except in rare and extreme circumstances. But Jacobson told the Board last Monday that he will not accept the CRB recommendation.

“Removing punches would put my officers at risk because they need to be able to get people under control when they’re trying to detain them,” Jacobson told the News. “I respect the CRB, and we have a strong working relationship but I don’t think this recommendation comes from them fully understanding the use-of-force policy.” 

The CRB recommendation stems from Internal Affairs complaints including one against then officer, now Sergeant, Justin Cole who was accused of excessive force when he punched a man in the head three times after the man kicked him during an arrest on Church Street. Cole was cleared of wrongdoing by city investigators. 

Jacobson emphasized to the News that punches are an important component of what an officer can do to subdue a detainee or individual who is resisting arrest or an officer’s command. 

“The other alternatives to punches are tazing or other force which can cause more harm,” Jacobson told the News. 

Last December, the Board of Police Commissioners updated the city’s use of force policy to emphasize that officers may only use force when necessary and not simply because it is legal. 

Civilian Review Board Chair AnneMarie Rivera-Berrios said at the meeting that she understood the necessity of putting herself in a police officer’s shoes but still could not justify the use of force she saw in some videos. 

“I think to myself, ‘Could you have kicked the leg or the side and not the head or stomach?’” Rivera-Berrios said. “There are certain organs that if you put trauma on, it could cause hospitalization and the question becomes if we’re being the most productive.” 

Jacobson suggested to Rivera-Berrios and the CRB that members schedule times to attend police training so that they can get a better understanding of the reason why police make certain decisions in a situation. 

Still, CRB members expressed concern in meetings about specific “use of force” increases. “Use-of-hands” jumped up 250 percent from last year with 98 reported use-of-hands incidents in 2021 reaching 366. At a CRB meeting in late September, Jacobson said that much of this jump could be attributed to increased physical contact after COVID-19 and a greater amount of police self-reporting use-of-hands in incidents. 

Lt. Manmeet Colon, who heads Internal Affairs, noted that any physical interaction above “resisted handcuffing” is considered “use of hands.” Such an interaction would be classified in a “use of force” report that  officers are required to submit. In addition to a lower standard for what is considered use-of-hands, Jacobson and Colon both said that the number of officers who are submitting reports per incident has climbed up as well. 

Where one officer would submit one use of force form for a single incident, now with Connecticut’s 2020 Police Accountability Bill any officers present are required to report use-of-hands incidents. This means that for one use-of-hands incident, the NHPD might file six or seven reports. 

Curbing careless use of profanity 

Within a larger issue of what CRB members called “discourteous” behavior, members called for the NHPD chiefs to curb officers’ frequent use of profanity. 

“The careless use of profanity is highly unprofessional and it’s not de-escalation,” they wrote in their official recommendations document. 

In the first CRB meeting discussing the suggestions, Jacobson said he agreed that officers should avoid using profanity recklessly. He also added that in some situations officers might “inadvertently” use profanity because of the level of stress they might be experiencing in some situations. 

Rivera-Berrios countered that argument, saying that officers should be held to a similar standard in terms of courtesy towards others that exists in different workplaces. 

“I have to say there’s a lot of jobs where we’re at a high-stress level,” she said. “For example as an educator, if I were to move towards profanity in a stressful situation, that would not be good.” 

Jacobson promised to address the issue with some smaller steps including having supervisors make officers who perhaps swore excessively in an incident listen to their own body worn camera footage. 

“It would allow the officer to hear it from a similar perspective as the non-law-enforcement person,” he said. 

No congratulations and no shouting 

In some cases they reviewed, the CRB said they saw officers on the scene congratulating other officers. They said they heard officers loudly proclaiming “That was great! Great call out!” after arrests. To some members, this rhetoric made those arrests seem more like a “sporting event victory.” 

In the first CRB meeting where members presented their solutions, Jacobson acknowledged that congratulations in that manner might look bad to civilians. 

“But also,” he continued, “what these officers are happy about is that they got a gun off the street, or a violent felon off the street, or there was some kind of chase or a foot chase and they caught somebody safely and nobody got hurt.” 

Instead, Jacobson said he has been focused on reminding officers to maintain decorum and respect when standing around crime scenes during investigations. 

CRB Member John Pescatore responded that while officers congratulating each other for getting a gun off the street might be “understandable,” seeing police congratulate each other when details in an incident are still unclear is problematic.  

Pescatore mentioned a case one CRB group reviewed during which police congratulated each other for getting a kid on the ground to arrest him. But in that case, Pescatore said, the kid was not guilty.  

“We discussed in our group that we thought this was really dehumanizing for this young kid because he ran because he was afraid, not because he was guilty,” said Pescatore. 

In future cases, Pescatore said he would like to see officers more reserved while still at the scene. If they want to congratulate each other, Pescatore said, it should at least be out of the public eye. 

Jacobson said that for such a scenario he agreed with Pescatore’s judgment and that he would mention this to officers in police lineups. 

“You’re right,” Jacobson said. “One thing may be perceived to the officers as alright but we need to make sure the officers see how the community perceives it.”

CRB members also asked Jacobson to crack down on officers shouting at civilians. 

“Shouting is counterproductive, and escalates tensions, precisely when officers should be working to de-escalate emotions,” members wrote. “Police officers are adults with extensive training, and the CRB is aware that ‘de-escalation’ is a significant and important part of officer training. Shouting and cursing at civilians, especially youth, reflects poorly on the NHPD, and raises questions about the effectiveness of the current training standards for de-escalation.” 

When he started as an officer 25 years ago, Jacobson said he was trained to shout in order to control a situation but that he agrees shouting only escalates a situation. 

“But unfortunately it took many many years for our training to catch up with the community,” Jacobson said.

Pescatori said he hopes to see policies around officers shouting change. 

“It seems to me there are a lot of jobs out there where you can probably lose your job really quickly for profanity, yelling, and shouting, and certainly at this point that’s probably not the case among police officers,” Pescatori said. 

Jacobson said he understands Pescatori’s concern, but that due to the nature of situations police respond to, the issue is not as clear-cut. 

“I totally understand teachers and all those other professions but honestly when you’re chasing somebody with a gun and there’s the potential that you have to take their life or they take your life, it just raises it to another level but you’re totally right it’s’ been an instance when we’ve allowed it.” Jacobson concluded.  

The 15 member board meets on the last Monday of each month.

Sophie Sonnenfeld is Managing Editor of the Yale Daily News. She previously served as City Editor and covered cops and courts as a beat reporter. She is a junior in Branford College double majoring in political science and anthropology.
Yash Roy covered City Hall and State Politics for the News. He also served as a Production & Design editor, and Diversity, Equity & Inclusion chair for the News. Originally from Princeton, New Jersey, he is a '25 in Timothy Dwight College majoring in Global Affairs.